How to clean your ears properly: audiologists share their tips, from the best way to clean out earwax to why you should avoid cotton buds

Ever tried to clean your ears at home? While audiologists advise against it, here they share their tips on the safest approach…

Earwax: it’s something we don’t really give much thought to. According to the NHS, earwax usually just falls out on its own. However, some people still attempt to clean out their ears at home on a regular basis – something all audiologists say we should try to avoid doing.

“General showering and hair washing may help to wash away the wax. Other than that, wax will generally work its way out of the ear canal naturally and not require additional intervention unless it becomes impacted,” Duncan Collet-Fenson, head audiologist and managing director of Aston Hearing.

However, an excessive build-up of earwax may cause infection or hearing loss. Collet-Fenson notes that impacted ear wax may be the cause of severe pain in one or both of your ears, fluid or drainage from the ears, an odour coming from your ears, feeling dizzy, persistent hearing loss or hearing a persistent ringing noise.

While professional help is the best approach, it may not be possible at the moment. So, we spoke to audiologists about the best way to clean out earwax at home – and why you should never reach for a cotton bud.

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Why is it important to clear out your ears?

“It is important we keep our ears clean to prevent infection,” says Gordon Harrison, an audiologist at Specsavers. “But despite what many people think, earwax isn’t a sign of uncleanliness – it in fact acts as a mechanism to keep the ear clean and prevent debris and bacteria from entering.”


How often should you clean out your ears?

Approaching the best way to clean your ears can be tricky but all audiologists agree: you should never put anything inside your ears.  “You should regularly wipe around the outside of your ear to keep it clean,” explains Harrison.

“However, you should avoid putting anything inside your ear canal. Warm water and olive oil can be used sparingly a couple of times a week for people who experience a moderate build-up of wax, but if ear wax is a persistent problem, you should speak to your audiologist (or your GP) who will be able to advise on the best course of action.”

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Are Q-tips ever safe to use in the ears?

Many of us are probably guilty of poking a Q-tip/cotton bud around our ears, but this is a cardinal sin for audiologists. “Inserting cotton buds within the ear pushes excess wax even deeper into the ear canal, and can lead to impacted earwax, hearing loss or even a burst or damaged ear drum,” says Collet-Fenson.

Harrison adds, “As a general rule, nothing smaller than your elbow should ever be put inside the ear.”


How can you tell if your ear is blocked with earwax?

“Quite often, if your ears are blocked with wax it can feel as if you’ve lost your hearing slightly as noises can become more muffled, you may experience ringing or a popping sensation, feel pain or a ‘fullness’ in your ear,” says Harrison.

However, Harrison explains that these can also be symptoms of a more serious problem. If you suspect you might have a build-up of wax, he recommends seeking advice from an audiologist.

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How can you treat earwax build-up yourself?

Excess or stubborn earwax requires the help of a professional and there are two main methods that experts rely on.

“Microsuction is a very safe method of wax removal,” says Duncan Collet-Fenson. “This involves using a suction device to remove the wax within the ear canal; the clinician will normally use a microscope to ensure wax is extracted safely.” As this method avoids touching the sensitive skin of the ear canal, it’s considered the most comfortable.

“The second method is ear irrigation, which means using warm water into the ear to wash the loose wax out. However, this method is generally considered to be less comfortable and the client must insert a loosening solution within the ear for seven-10 days before the procedure.”

While our ears are delicate and it’s important to seek professional advice, this may not be possible at the moment, with many audiologist clinics closed.

“At this time, there may be some restrictions on where these services are available, but professional audiologists can advise you on the options available,” says Harrison. “You should never use cotton buds or ear candles to try and remove wax yourself. Instead try putting a couple of drops of olive oil in your ear to soften wax to help it come out of the ear.”

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What causes earwax build-up?

“Despite the fact many people thinking earwax is bad – it is actually a good thing to have in our ears which is why our body produces it,” explains Harrison.

“There are many reasons why we have earwax: its sticky texture prevents bacteria and germs from moving further into the ear and causing infections, wax helps clean the ears taking trapped dirt with it when it falls out the ears, it helps lubricate the skin and maintains the ear’s natural PH balance which helps keep out bacteria and prevents irritation and dryness and it also helps keep out any unwelcome guests.

“Usually your body will produce enough earwax to maintain ear health but sometimes this wax can become hard or impacted which can lead to problems like hearing loss or discomfort. This can be caused by wearing ear plugs, ear buds or hearing aids; if your ear canals are quite narrow or hairy; exposure to moisture; or it can be down to our age – earwax becomes drier as we get older.”

How can you prevent earwax build-up?

As earwax is actually useful to have, both Harrison and Collet-Fenson strongly advise leaving it unless you experience an excessive amount that causes hearing loss.

Harrison says, “The best thing to do is to avoid putting anything in your ears, such as headphones, which could push earwax further into your ear canal.”

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